THE Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, published the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill six years ago in October 2017 and invited stakeholders to a meeting at the beginning of 2020 to discuss it. (I want to make it clear: I was not invited.) After that, Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba, the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on basic education, gave stakeholders until March 2022 to provide written comments on it.
Differences of opinion
The bill has led to numerous disagreements. There are those like Theuns Eloff, former vice-chancellor of North-West University, who believe it is “the strongest attack since 1994 on the fundamental right of parent communities to have a say in their children's education". According to Eloff, it is also “the strongest and most bitter attack on Afrikaans education since our country's democracy", as reported on Netwerk24 in March 2022.
Unlike Eloff, I believe (as outlined in an article on Netwerk24 on October 5, 2022) that the Bela (as it is known in educational circles due to the English acronym for Basic Education Laws Amendment Act) is an attempt to address the inequalities of the past. Eloff and I have often sat at the same table and know each other well enough to understand that we share the same goals for education and for Afrikaans. On this important issue, heads must come together to navigate a path that will benefit everyone.
A better life
I begin with the positives. I have been involved in basic and higher education for many years (longer than I wanted), and I often wonder how many South Africans have identified with Nelson Mandela's words: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world." Nearly 30 years after the dawn of democracy, and on the eve of Teachers' Day on October 5, our education system is still hampered by basic shortcomings that hinder effective teaching and learning.
The suspicion that there are significant inequalities in the system was confirmed by Covid-19. The preamble to our constitution mentions the new South Africa was born from the desire to heal the inequalities and divisions of the past and to create a society founded on democratic values to offer a better life to all citizens. Is this what the amendment bill aims to achieve? It addresses 18 issues, and not everything is negative. I'll mention a few examples.
Early childhood development
A major problem is the absence of preschool education for the vast majority of children. Recent literacy results have shown that most pupils have a huge backlog. The new bill makes grade R compulsory, which is a step in the right direction.
The right to education
With so many pupils falling behind during the pandemic, it is gratifying that the bill allows the prosecution of those who prevent pupils from attending school. In the past, too many children were used as cannon fodder in the “civil war" during apartheid, and the education of thousands was sacrificed in the process. Those days are over. Teachers' place is in the classroom or on the sports field.
The abuse of drugs is a huge headache. Therefore, the measures surrounding the possession and use of drugs on school grounds, as well as the regulations related to the suspension and expulsion of children who are guilty of this, have been adapted. Schools can now act more strictly in cases of serious misconduct.
The concern about rural schools that are starting to empty due to urbanisation is addressed. Under the new legislation, these schools can merge, uniting communities that were previously separated. In these difficult economic times, it is also encouraging that parents have the option of applying for a waiver so they don't have to pay school fees. With corruption rampant, the law also provides that parents who provide false information or forged documents to obtain a waiver can be prosecuted.
There isn't enough space to delve into all the positive aspects. However, I want to focus on two that have caused a lot of unhappiness: the limitation of school governing bodies' powers and the determination of schools' admission and language policies.
Where schools could previously determine their own admission and language policies, the bill says they will have to submit them for approval by the provincial education head. This is a violation of schools' democratic rights. It undermines parental involvement, when the objective should be the opposite.
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) says any changes to a school's language and admission policy will occur only “after consultation with the school's governing body". According to the DBE, this will ensure that all official languages have equal standing and that schools cannot use language as a basis for discrimination.
The Constitutional Court ruled in the Rivonia Primary case in 2013 that the DBE has the authority to set aside a school's non-admission of a student. That authority is now enshrined in the bill, which says the education head can compel a public school to offer more than one language of instruction if the need exists, provided the DBE provides the teaching resources.
But that is precisely the problem. The DBE did itself no favours in its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many promises were made and never fulfilled.
I have written ad nauseam about schools that, after nearly 30 years of democracy, still have to make do with pit toilets and without the most basic facilities. The underlying message (which is not always explicitly stated) is clear: How can we trust the government? Are all the sweet words just a ploy to push through the bill and then, as has often happened in the past, forget about it?
This is where the rubber meets the road: we still struggle to trust each other's intentions. The division and mistrust are still there.
Perhaps the solution lies in the words of the Constitutional Court justice when he said school communities must work together in good faith in a process where mutual trust and respect are crucial building blocks for any healthy school community.
If we truly want to show our children the way to a genuinely non-racial society where all South Africans can live together in harmony and peace, we must embody those values and teach them to our children already in school.
No date has been set for when the amendment bill will be presented to parliament, but persistent rumours suggest this day is not far off. Considering the government's declining reputation, it is not far-fetched to speculate that it could use Bela as a last-ditch effort to remain in power after next year's election. Those who are serious about parents' role in their children's education and the preservation of Afrikaans should be aware that time is not on our side.
Perhaps this is an opportunity for political cooperation. All indications are that South Africa is heading towards a coalition government. For the political parties hoping to form a coalition, this is the ideal trial run to show they can collaborate on an issue of national importance.
Whatever happens, the onus is on the government to prove we can trust it to implement this new legislation in good faith, and in a manner that will benefit all our children and ensure access to quality education.
* Prof Michael le Cordeur is the vice dean of teaching and learning in the Department of Education at Stellenbosch University and the vice- chairperson of the Foundation for Empowerment through Afrikaans.
♦ VWB ♦
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